Emptiness within fullness; fullness within emptiness.
This phrase sounds like a contradiction in terms, and because of that, it becomes as equally difficult a concept for the teacher to teach as it is for the student to learn. However, the understanding of it is vital to the correct practice of tai chi chuan.
To begin with, it is helpful to compare this idea to a balloon. Of itself an empty balloon is useless, collapsed and limp. To fulfill its purpose, air must be put inside and then it expands bigger and bigger, acquiring buoyancy and bounce. We describe it as being filled with air, but if we were to look: inside most people would say it was empty. That's what we call emptiness within fullness; fullness within emptiness.
So, how is this related to tai chi? When we do Tai chi you have to feel like the balloon. Your body is the balloon. The inside emptiness is your qi (energy). Your qi fills the inside of your body so that you feel fullness there. The fullness is also what makes possible body unity.
Some people, when they do tai chi are very stiff, some are too loose. Why is that? Because they do not have the concept of emptiness within fullness; fullness within emptiness. They have very little or no qi (energy) inside. 'When people are stiff they are holding tension; they will feel painful, sore, fatigued and are likely to be easily injured. On the other hand, people who are too loose are collapsed, so that their body is shrinking, the joints are closed and their spines are often curled, hunched. When they do tai chi that way, there is definitely no feeling of spirit, what is called sung. In Chinese we say, "There is no sung inside their tai chi" Compare that to no air inside a balloon.
With good tai chi posture you are supposed to feel the fullness of energy flowing inside the body. The stronger the energy you have, the stronger the feeling of fullness that is produced. Fullness is the key to unity. To help you understand how this is so, we can again use the example of a balloon. When a balloon is not filled with air, its form is limp. If you were to nudge or lift any piece of it, the rest of the balloon either remains unaffected or there is movement but not with equal distance, speed or direction. However, fill it with air and the air connects all its parts of it together through the center, so that if any point on the balloon is moved the whole of it is shifted proportionately equal in every way.
Conversely, when you really understand the concept of emptiness you will find the key to relaxation. To be relaxed has nothing to do with being limp, yet this is often how it is interpreted, with a sagging posture. The head leans forward, the shoulders droop, the back curves, wrists bend and the fingers curl. This is not relaxing, this is collapsing; the body is shrinking, the spaces in the joints are compressing and closing. When that happens the smooth circulation of qi (energy) and blood is blocked. True relaxing is a release from tension, enabling the body to expand; internal cavities, pathways and joints spread open, creating empty space. (A detailed explanation of the relationship between relaxing and expanding will be forthcoming.) Qi (energy) fills the emptiness in this space, but what is qi? Like the air inside a balloon it cannot be seen or touched, so it can also be said that qi is the emptiness that fulfills the body. It is the unifying element that binds all the parts together through the center, and is the reason that, "fullness is the key to unity", as described in the previous paragraph. When you realize this you will understand the meaning of, *If one part of the body moves, every part must move together.
How can we accomplish this? Correct posture is the foundation where we begin to develop this feeling of emptiness within fullness; fullness within emptiness.
Correct posture is:
Tailbone sinking, feet deep to the ground, head rising to the ceiling, chest in and back out, shoulders relaxed and elbows down. The lower dantian is the source of the energy. 'it must have the continuous feeling of both hollowing emptiness and accumulating fullness in order for the energy inside of your body to be filling you, like the air in a balloon.
Remember when expanding, one thing is very important, that you should feel as if both middle fingers are connected together. In your mind you have to be aware of this. Think again of the balloon, The balloon is like a container; it is hollow inside to hold the air. If the balloon breaks or gets a hole in it, then the air escapes and its usefulness becomes worthless.
Mentally connecting the middle fingers is like forming our container; it encircles the space that holds the energy and unites the line that creates continuous circulation. If you don't make the connection then there is a gap, the energy leaks out and you can't feel the fullness. `Like a balloon with a hole in it the function is lost, people who do tai chi that way don’t realize the true benefits.
Like the balloon our arms feel longer, our back opens more, our head reaches higher while our feet sink deeper. In order to open the joints and relax we cannot move in only one direction. It must be all directions; right must also have left, up must have down, and forward must also be going backward. Most people understand this concept, that balance is maintained with counter balance. Still, don't limit yourself to just these 6 directions, expansion includes every opposed diagonal in between. It is the moving in all the opposite directions at the same time that's what expands the space.
Expansion creates more space, more spade means more emptiness to fill, the fuller it gets the stronger the energy! That is the relationship of emptiness within fullness; fullness within emptiness.
It is my hope that after reading this article it will help you to understand the importance of the relationship between empty and full. If you can incorporate this concept into your practice it will make your tai chi much more enjoyable. The benefits you experience should increase, including your health so that maybe you will practice even more.